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Behav Ther. 2018 Nov;49(6):1008-1019. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2018.03.001. Epub 2018 Mar 8.

Preextinction Stress Prevents Context-Related Renewal of Fear.

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Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Ruhr-University Bochum.
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Ruhr-University Bochum. Electronic address:


Extinction learning, which creates new safety associations, is thought to be the mechanism underlying exposure therapy, commonly used for the treatment of anxiety disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder. The relative strength and availability for retrieval of both the fear and safety memories determine the response in a given situation. While the fear memory is often context-independent and may easily generalize, extinction memory is highly context-specific. "Renewal" of the extinguished fear memory might thus occur following a shift in context. The aim of the current work was to create an enhanced and generalized extinction memory to a discrete stimulus using stress exposure before extinction learning, thereby preventing renewal. In our contextual fear conditioning paradigm, 40 healthy men acquired (Day 1), retrieved and extinguished (Day 2) the fear memories, with no differences between the stress and the control group. A significant difference between the groups emerged in the renewal test (Day 3). A renewal effect was seen in the control group (N = 20), confirming the context-dependency of the extinction memory. In contrast, the stress group (N = 20) showed no renewal effect. Fear reduction was generalized to the acquisition context as well, suggesting that stress rendered the extinction memory more context-independent. These results are in line with previous studies that showed contextualization disruption as a result of pre-learning stress, mediated by the rapid effects of glucocorticoids on the hippocampus. Our findings support research investigating the use of glucocorticoids or stress induction in exposure therapy and suggest the right timing of administration in order to optimize their effects.


anxiety; cortisol; exposure therapy; extinction learning; fear conditioning

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